The Problem of PBL During the Time of COVID

“Learning is the constant and time is the variable,” is a central tenet of Proficiency Based Learning (PBL).

Unfortunately this time of COVID-19 school dismissal is magnifying an unpleasant reality.  In the modern school system, given the exigencies of a complex system, under the existing school calendar, and under the reality of the traditional teacher contract, time is most decidedly not a variable.

The promise of PBL is that students will only progress when they are proficient, not when they have served enough seat time.  Because school has been dismissed for more than two months — with fully four weeks of no new learning allowed and more than a quarter of the year conducted remotely — students have effectively “missed” a significant amount of instructional time.

As a result, many students will simply not have enough time to become proficient.  If you miss 1/5th of the year in Biology, it’s pretty likely that you will not be proficient in Biology, unless the standards of proficiency are lower, reduced, or condensed.  And if achieving proficiency in Biology’s standards is a graduation requirement, which it usually is, then students have no choice but to take some kind of further Biology next year.  

Here’s the problem: How does this work?  

There are only so many options:

First, students could simply retake a semester of Biology next year.  This is fine, but it would mean that students might necessarily need to repeat a great deal of content.  Also, if second semester Bio is not offered until second semester next year, students may have forgotten much of the foundational knowledge, and may do poorly picking it up again after nearly a year.

Second, students could simply move into next year’s science course — Chemistry — and attempt to make up their Biology standards in that course.  This strategy can work in subjects that are recursive (such as English, where research writing, for example, can be worked on just as well in 10th grade English as in 11th grade English).  But it does not work as well in a subject like science, where a Chemistry teacher may not be comfortable teaching Biology.

Third, the students could simply be given a grade of “Pass” in Biology; essentially, the school could say that they did their homework, did the best they could, and who cares if they didn’t learn all the material to a proficient level.  They did well enough to move on to the next level.  

This is the answer of the old Carnegie Unit grading system.  Students’ work habits were mushed in with their content mastery; reasonably solid work habits could allow students to pass even when their content understanding was shaky.

Fourth, the students who need more time could be given a special supplemental period of learning during the summer.  Those who need more Biology could take more Biology.  Then when the normal school year starts, every student is back at an equal starting point again.  This, really, the answer of PBL: learning should be the constant, and time the variable.

Unfortunately, in the real world time is not a variable.  Courses end and school years end.  Days have a fundamental number of hours, and so do school days.  The instructional time that schools have missed as a result of the COVID dismissal is truly lost time; we have no easy mechanism for making it.  Lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, or lengthening students’ time in high school from four to five years are nearly impossible — logistically, financially, and politically.  Time truly is a finite resource.

The best course I can think of is for schools to attempt to move forward by reducing the number of proficient demonstrations a student must achieve.  Instead of three proficient research essays, allow two.  The other best approach is for schools to reduce the number of graduation standards.  Instead of nine Biology proficiencies a student must meet, consider requiring only seven.  Or condense time by creating units and content that address several standards at once: critical reading, expository writing, and research.  Focus on depth rather than breadth.

In many ways, the COVID dismissal removes the focus from PBL during what would have been the new system’s most critical test: the graduation of its first class of seniors.  Now the pressure is off in a way, as schools feel the heat to graduate students no matter what (due to the trying circumstances, the natural tendency is to act compassionately to borderline seniors).  

But the resulting disclarity and confusion — what do schools require, of whom? —  going forward will only exacerbate the underlying logistical and practical challenges of the new system.  Say what you want about the Carnegie Unit system, but it was an easy administrative tool that survived for a century in part due to its simplicity and practicality.  These are just the sort of traits many administrators and educators will be looking forward during a period of such swirling confusion and uncertainty.  

If Vermont’s educators hope to give PBL a chance to survive beyond its first graduating class, they will have to make tough, deliberate choices.  And they will have to recognize the contradiction at the heart of the new system: in the real world of public education, time (and money, which is time) have never truly been variable.